Michelle Paterson opened Woollahra gallery M Contemporary just over a year ago. It’s an intimate, sophisticated space that has exhibited a promising selection of talent from both local and international artists. In the midst of an era of endangered independent art real estate and gallery closures, the South African-born art collector’s passion prevailed, and she has established M Contemporary with the aim of supporting emerging and established artists.

Since opening, Paterson has thrown curatorial light on a host of artists from her birthplace; launching the gallery with an exhibition by South African-based Lyndi Sales. M Contemporary’s stable now also includes Cape Town locals Marna Hattingh and Michael Taylor. “I grew up in South Africa and I also feel the art from South Africa is very strong,” Paterson says. “The country has been through so much and where art has betrayed apartheid and politics for a long time it has now moved on to other social issues.”

The driving concept for M Contemporary is to support its exhibiting artists by engaging and encouraging collecting and collectors, whether they are novice or veteran. Paterson approaches curation as a collector first, gallerist second – and can see the value in nurturing collecting practice. “I wanted to create a space that was professional but at the same time friendly and not intimidating, because I feel that the new collector is just as important at the artists,” Paterson says. “We do not have a sustainable art market without the collectors. Having a friendly gallery with lots of artist talks and different exhibitions like street art and wearable art will hopefully encourage more potential collectors to visit the gallery.”

The gallerist’s innate curiosity for new, interesting and unique artwork started early on. “My interest really started when I was about 17 and spent my month’s restaurant wages on a woodprint,” she smiles. “I have always liked things that were true and original. I am a bit of a purist.”

This month Paterson will showcase a series of “wearable art” in an exhibition entitled Intimately Connected. The exhibition will show an extensive selection of arresting and individual jewellery pieces from artists and artisans based in Sydney and all over the world. Artists from Australia include paper master Benja Harney and ceramicist Natalie Rosin. From Israel, Daniella Saraya makes bone-like bands, headpieces and rings adorned with clusters of tiny crystals. Vacide Erda Zimic from Peru makes fabric collar pieces and spiked felt bags in rainbows of colour.

For Paterson, the quality of uniqueness is supreme in art but also in every day. “I believe in a curated life, where I try and surround myself with objects, food and people that are true and honest,” she says. “Wearable art or contemporary jewellery has that handmade, one-of-a-kind quality that is so much more than a branded piece and tells so much more about the wearer. A car, or a handbag tells people what you can afford but your art and your jewellery tells the story of who you are and it is so much more interesting. I want to give people the opportunity to express themselves.”

We asked Michelle to lift the veil on commercial curation and list five key components, considerations and concerns she believes are paramount when curating an independent gallery.

1. An endless, extensive search.
“It can be a lot of hard work finding artists. I visit artist-run spaces, I do a lot of studio visits and I get referrals from artists, writers and lectures. I also spend a lot of time online. We encourage artists to submit their work to the gallery and spend a lot of time working through the submissions.”

2. Individuality is not only desired, but esteemed.
“I am drawn to the fresh and individual approach. Many emerging artists do have a similar style, so it’s immediately apparent when you come across a new talent.”

“Emerging artists do not have any reputation to ride off, but at the same time, they are not limited by their previous practice. They can be truly original and push the boundaries.”

3. Consider career longevity.
“An obstacle I often come across when working with artists is that they want to increase their prices too quickly. If money is their short-term motivation they are not going to make it. You need to look at the career over a lifetime and plan it strategically.”

4. Nurture collectors and collecting practice.
“Recognising the need for broader participation and exposure to art, our collectors program has a strong emphasis on providing a platform for new collectors to receive guidance by means of regular talks and panel discussions.” “The challenge is to curate exhibitions that will bring together interesting artists and relevant themes to connect with the young collector.”

5. Passion should propel vision.
“When you open a gallery you do it for the love, not the money. The overheads are huge. Some exhibitions sell well, others don’t. You have to stay true to who you are and what you believe in and stick with it. Sometimes an artist’s work does not sell in the first exhibition but if you believe in the work the collectors will come.”

Intimately Connected is showing at M Contemporary until October 26.

M Contemporary
37 Ocean Street, Woollahra

Tues to Sat 10am–5pm
Sun to Mon 11am–4pm.